Features March 2005
The difficult justice of Melville & Kleist
On the “issues of justice, especially social justice and law” in Billy Budd and Michael Kohlhaas.
There is an old Venetian folk story about a peasant who searched and searched for a just person to be his newborn child’s godfather. At last he met up with the Lord. “I need to baptize this little child, but I want a just person for his godfather,” he said. “Are you just?” Embarrassed, the Lord hesitated in his reply: “Well, you see, to tell the truth, not really.” “Then you can’t be my boy’s godfather,” the peasant said and went on till he encountered Our Lady. She too when asked if she were just, blushed, and said she couldn’t in good conscience claim so much. Finally the father encountered a lady dressed in black. “Yes, I believe I am a just person,” was her answer. The infant’s parents were overjoyed and the baptism duly took place with feasting and merrymaking. When the last guest had departed, the Signora Godmother invited the father into her palazzo and conducted...
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